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Winter in a yurt

MIDDLEBURY — Alice Eckles and Ross Conrad were living in a traditional apartment in Weybridge when they bought 25 acres in Middlebury with a plan of building a cordwoodhome. Soon after purchasing the land, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico took place and the couple talked about how they could step away from being part of the fossil-fuel-guzzling world while their permanent home is being built.
Eckles convinced her husband that living in a yurt, a circular tent traditionally used by nomads, would be the best way to get away from further polluting the earth. Now they are in their fourth year residing in a yurt, and they have been doing it without electricity.
“It was an adventure at first and we had to figure things out,” said Eckles.
A yurt is a combination between a hut and a tent. In theirs an inside wooden structure holds up canvas walls and a clear dome tops the peak of the conical roof. Originally the purpose was for nomads who needed portable housing.
The couple lived in a yurt briefly when they spent time at the Metta Earth Institute in Lincoln. Otherwise they only knew that they wanted to live in one and were unaware of the smaller details that would become increasingly important as they transitioned into their new life.
Putting up the yurt only took a few days but building the platform on which it stands took close to two weeks. Heating the yurt became the first obvious issue that they had to address. They installed a woodstove and finished installing it just as the first snow fell at the end of November 2010. The woodstove warms the single room amazingly well, despite the less-than-stellar job done by a thin layer of what they called “Space Age” insulation (bubble wrap with aluminum on one side). In fact, the couple uses only three cords of wood per winter to heat this yurt.
Other minor struggles that the couple originally faced involved washing dishes and hands. They ran into a glitch when they tried to hang things; this was soon remedied by screwing tree branches into the wall posts as hooks to hang things on.
Another issue was familiar to pioneers 200 years ago — how to see after the sun goes down. The couple uses beeswax candles, light given off from the fire and headlamps, as well as moonlight coming in through the clear dome. Plus, they find they have a limited amount of time when they actually need additional light.
“It’s not like we stay up that late,” said Conrad. “When it gets dark we get tired because we’re used to the patterns of nature.”
Something expectedly different is cooking, but they have adapted well. Sometimes they wrap potatoes and squash in foil and throw them into the woodstove when it has burned down to embers. Spaghetti made from scratch is a popular dish, and they often mix garlic and ginger with kale and eggs and potatoes in a pan, too. Other favorites include grilled cheese, omelets, oatmeal, sandwiches, big pots of soup and homemade granola. Since they own no oven, they use the woodstove inside the tent or a “rocket” stove or campfire outside for all of their heat-needing food items. For foods that need refrigeration, they use a cooler typically used by beach-goers.
“I love making a fire outside and heating water in the morning,” Eckles said.
There is no running water at their yurt so they have a well at the top of the hill that they pump by hand.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
The aspect that many assume would cause the most hassles is the lack of electricity. However, Eckles and Conrad aren’t too fazed.
“Living like this made me realize that if you really want to, you can live environmentally lighter. If people make an effort, we can do things differently,” said Conrad.
Since lessening his environmental footprint, Conrad has become more active in Middlebury’s decision making and he has been getting in contact with political representatives to discuss progress being made on the issue of climate change.
“I think some people think that human beings need electricity. It’s very important for at least some people to show that humans can live without it,” said Eckles, who likes living closer to her values and morals.
It is valid to think that this lifestyle would come with a lot of compromises, but Eckles said that living like this, she actually doesn’t have to compromise so much.
“You don’t need to live with all your stuff!” Eckles exclaimed. “This has helped me get rid of things and figure out the essentials that I need.”
It’s not just heat that comes and goes through the yurt walls more easily than through the walls of a traditional house.
“The yurt is acoustically transparent — we can hear everything,” said Conrad. This can be a curse and a blessing. Eckles and Conrad hear owls and coyotes and even porcupines at night.
“But you can’t even talk on the phone when it’s really raining,” said Eckles. This was one of only two actual complaints they had on yurt living. The other is that when they stay out late and return after the woodstove has cooled down, the temperature in the yurt can be near freezing.
“It’s really just a glorified tent,” said Conrad.
Despite these drawbacks, it was all worth it. A perk of the low environmental impact of a yurt is that one isn’t paying nearly as much as one would on a bigger, stick-built house.
The couple estimates they are saving about $8,000 a year; and, although the building and furnishing of the yurt cost around $15,000, they made that money back within two years.
At first when asked about what they missed most about living in a house with four walls, the couple smiled and laughed, saying that they honestly didn’t miss it at all. Eventually Eckles said the two things she does miss are the ability to bake and to have guests sleep over. If people want to sleep over, they are offered the floor or a tent outside.
The two individuals have some advice for future yurt-residents.
“Don’t be scared, go for it, you’ll figure it out,” said Eckles, who added, “and get a baker’s cabinet.”
They also recommend paying close attention to detail, a point on which they admit they fell slightly short. According to Conrad, they installed the stovepipe slanted downward a little bit which resulted in a little gap between the stovepipe and the wall; as a result water sometimes drips down the inside wall of the yurt during a heavy rainstorm.
ALICE ECKLES AND Ross Conrad sit comfortably inside their yurt last Thursday while their own source of heat — a woodstove — fills the air with warmth. Independent photo/Alex Munteanu
They also suggest that you give yourself plenty of time to build the platform and that you go to auctions for old-fashioned furniture that is more apt for simple living. It can be tricky to furnish a yurt since it is in a circle, so it is important to really plan out what you want to include in the home. Size is also an important consideration; Eckles and Conrad’s yurt has a diameter of 20 feet.
The couple had to get rid of basically anything that required electricity, but also a futon couch and other furniture that didn’t fit.
Their truck, which runs on used vegetable oil from local restaurants, is their main source of power for little things like charging cell phones and Eckles’ iPad. They have downsized to a single-car household and the vegetable oil increases gas mileage and has a significantly smaller environmental impact. Another thing that they don’t plan on changing once their house is built is their driveway. Currently it doesn’t exactly look like a driveway, especially with snow blanketing it. More it looks like a wide path into the woods. It stretches a half-mile but they don’t want to pay for plowing because of the energy and fossil fuels that that would consume.
They don’t plan to improve the driveway when the cordwood home is completed in three or four years.
Their harmony with nature is clearly evident from how they have chosen to live. Every day Eckles and Conrad are working to be better about how they use materials. The couple will give a talk on yurt living and the environment on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury.
Even though Eckles and Conrad needed to give up a lot to live this way, it seems that they have gained it all back in personal happiness and contentment within the natural world.
“We try to work with nature instead of fighting against it,” said Conrad. 

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